Howard County Executive James N. Robey yesterday proposed a ban on smoking in the county's restaurants and bars, making it the fourth jurisdiction in the Washington region to consider such a prohibition in public spaces.

The measure, which would fine establishments $500 for allowing indoor smoking, is similar to legislation that Montgomery County passed in 2003 and that is under consideration in the District and Prince George's County.

If the proposed bans take effect -- which appears likely in at least two of the jurisdictions -- it would create a four-jurisdiction smoke-free zone stretching from the White House almost to Baltimore.

"I just can't wait any longer to ban smoking," said Robey (D), who said he has watched several friends and family members die of smoking-related cancer. "Too many lives are at stake."

Kari Appler, executive director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, said local measures in the Washington suburbs are building momentum toward a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. The measure has foundered in the General Assembly in recent years, but Appler said it has a good chance of passing next year.

"It's only a matter of time before the state of Maryland goes smoke-free," she said. "It's just a question of when."

Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said a smoking ban would cripple the state's hospitality industry, particularly small bars and restaurants that depend on loyal smoking customers.

"It might be a small percentage of the entire market," he said. "But this sort of ban can really kill them."

Howard was one of the first counties in Maryland to begin tightening restrictions on smoking. Since 1996, it has banned it in restaurants and bars unless they create separately ventilated smoking areas.

Thompson said 83 percent of eating and drinking establishments in Howard prohibit smoking as a result of that measure. He questioned why additional restrictions were necessary when so few businesses allow smoking.

"We think this is an attempt to fix a problem that doesn't exist," he said.

But Glenn E. Schneider, legislative chairman of the Smoke Free Howard County coalition, said Robey's proposal doesn't go far enough. He said his group opposes a provision that would allow establishments with separately ventilated smoking areas to wait until 2008 before they comply with the ban.

"More people die every minute you wait to fully implement this smoking ban," he said.

Two of the five County Council members -- Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) and Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia) -- said in interviews that they support the measure. Guzzone said passage of the bill might well hinge on the vote of the council's only other Democrat, David A. Rakes (East Columbia).

Schneider said Rakes pledged in writing during his 2002 campaign that he would support a total ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. But Rakes said yesterday that he has not decided how he will vote on Robey's proposal. He said he might submit legislation to allow establishments with smoking areas to be permanently exempt from the new law.

"They've already spent so much money to comply with our old law that we shouldn't now change the rules on them," Rakes said.

He said smoking ban proponents could not pressure him with his 2002 pledge. "To hold it over my head to say that three years ago I supported this, I think that's unfair," he said. "I have an opportunity to change my mind if I gain more information."

Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-West County) said he staunchly opposes any further restrictions on smoking.

"Unless cigarettes become an illegal substance, we've gone far enough," he said. "This ban goes too far with its impact on the economics of the businesses and personal freedoms of smokers."

The District and Prince George's seem poised to approve bans. In Prince George's, eight of nine council members have signed on as sponsors; in the District, a majority of the council and the mayor are in favor.

Smoking opponents say bans do not harm eating and drinking establishments. A report released yesterday by the Montgomery County Council showed that the county's smoking ban has had no significant effect on restaurant revenue and employment.

Thompson said the report was not reliable because it was commissioned by proponents of the smoking bans, who have a stake in the results. He said the negative impact felt by bars and businesses in Montgomery and elsewhere is real.

"If we didn't notice a pattern of economic damage to restaurants and bars, why would we be fighting this issue?" he said.